The Pulitzers were announced yesterday. As it happened, I’d read the books that won in the two most headlined categories. The fiction winner was “All the Light We Cannot See” by Andrew Doerr. The non-fiction nod went to “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert.
Kolbert’s book began as an article for The New Yorker where she is a staff writer who covers environmental issues. And does she cover them. Her “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” had a huge influence on many of its readers. It was about the science of climate change and took those of us who relished its pages to distant locations for potent demonstrations of the warming’s impact.
“The Sixth Extinction” is even broader in scope, one of those books for which I’ve used a lot of highlighter so I can review it later, which I’ve already done with hers. The title refers to the massive die-off of species triggered by humankind’s role in climate change. By 2050 Kolbert says we’ll likely have killed about 30 percent of all species; by 2100, that number could rise to 50 percent. In the book, a researcher tells Kolbert to look around: “Kill half of what you see. Or if you’re feeling generous, just kill about a quarter of what you see. That’s what we could be talking about.”
I was happy to see Kolbert’s win. I hope it draws attention to what was arguably the most important work of non-fiction last year. It’s as elegiac as it is insightful, and she brings so much life—if you’ll excuse that term in this context—to a subject that otherwise is so profoundly morbid.
As for “All the Light We Cannot See,” I liked it but never fell fully under its spell. My choice would have been “Preparations for the Next Life” by Atticus Lish, the story of a veteran of the most recent Iraq war and an illegal Chinese immigrant in New York City. At times corrosive, at times so touching it defies easy categorization, it’s a novel for the ages. It says as much about human feelings in our era as Kolbert says about the rapid and widespread loss of life on the planet we dominate so completely.
Here’s an interview with Kolbert on Democracy Now: